Fighting COVID: Seattle company Outdoor Research starts producing CDC-approved medical face masks

VIDEO: Seattle company Outdoor Research starts producing CDC-approved medical face masks

SEATTLE — A local company, Outdoor Research, is now in the mask making business. They’re answered the call to help ensure we never face another medical mask shortage, and will soon be able to produce 200,000 masks a day.

The masks are made in the factory above their storefront in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood.

“We’re running 3 shifts, 24/7,” said Jason Duncan, the head of tactical innovation at Outdoor Research.

Content Continues Below

They’ve gone from making ski coats, hiking gear, and gear for the military, to making PPE – specifically, medical-grade face masks.

Many companies have added cloth masks to their inventory Outdoor Research has those too, but said after seeing the desperate shortage for medical-grade PPE, they decided to take the effort to fight COVID further.

“We decided, why don’t we go all the way, with the N-95 respirators and surgical masks?,” Duncan said.

That decision was cemented back in April after Washington State Governor Jay Inslee asked local manufacturers to retool their production lines, just like they did in World War II.

“Now it is time for all of us to turn to manufacturing the equipment we need in this fight -- in the war of this century,” Inslee said on April 1.

The company invested millions in making the pivot, and now produces a foldable N-95 respirator mask with a tight fit and a nose wire, plus a three-ply surgical mask.

“Our third floor has been converted completely to an FDA manufacturing space,” Duncan said.

They purchased six giant semi-automatic machines, hired 150 new employees, and had to re-do the HVAC system to be FDA compliant for producing medical-grade masks.

Duncan said the regulations and quality control are intense.

“We have a particle counter that we have to go through and do our fit testing on,” he said. “There is a lot of criteria, I’ve never talked so much about blood splatter in my life,” Duncan said.

But he said after seeing repeated cases of sub par equipment coming in from China, including to Washington state, he’s glad for the strict regulations.

“We’ve seen mask chaos in regards to PPE,” Duncan said. “For this type of equipment, we shouldn’t be reliant on an offshore supply chain that we have seen can’t deliver,” he said.

Now they have the stamp of approval from the Feds. The N-95 masks are approved by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) and the CDC.

The surgical masks are getting FDA approval this week.

“We’re very excited about that,” Duncan aid.

He says there would be no pivoting, no mask making, and taking part in the fight against the COVID pandemic without their employees - many of whom he says are first generation Americans.

“We honor them - how much they’re doing for us and the general public for health and safety,” Duncan said.

Duncan said mask making will now be a permanent part of their business. Anyone can buy their cloth masks with replaceable filters, but medical grade ones are sold directly to federal and state agencies, to be distributed to frontline workers.

Washington State is currently the company’s largest buyer of medical masks.